If Cops Understood Crowd Psychology, They’d Tone Down The Riot Gear

A militarized police force changes the mentality of the crowd it’s designed to protect.

One of the clearest lessons from Ferguson is that the militarization of local police has become a major problem across the United States. Images of grotesquely armed forces staring down peaceful protestors in the streets have given way to interactive maps of the armored vehicles and assault weapons distributed to police departments in recent years. On Saturday, President Obama announced a White House review of that unsettling trend–too late this time around, but appropriate nevertheless.


The conventional wisdom behind forceful crowd control deserves a review of its own. Rather than passively controlling a protest, heavy riot gear actively changes the dynamics of crowd behavior, according to the best new behavioral evidence. The twisted outcome is one that too many police forces have yet to learn: the military-style equipment intended to enhance public safety often ends up threatening it.

Let’s step back a moment to the classic psychological theory on crowds, which gave rise to many of the tougher approaches taken today. Originating during the political instability of 19th-century France, and later adopted by most 20th-century social scientists, this thinking held that people in a crowd lost their individuality and became suggestible to the aggressive behavior of those around them. That view gave rise to phrases like “mob mentality” and “deindividuation”–the idea of a crowd as a singular entity rather than a collection of independent people capable of thinking for themselves.

Riot police in Ferguson, MOBilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The danger in this simplified thinking is that it treats the most peaceful member of a crowd the same way it treats the most violent one. While the anonymity of crowds can no doubt inspire aggression on occasion, even a cursory glance at events like Ferguson reveals crowd behavior to be extremely complex. Sure, there are always a few jerks stirring up trouble, but there are far more peaceful protestors–there from all walks of life, there for whatever personal reason.


The accepted wisdom on crowds began to shift when social scientists studied collective action more closely. During a wave of riots in Britain in 1980, for instance, individuals failed to behave the way a classic mob mentality approach to crowds would suggest. Psychologist Stephen Reicher documented some of the curiosities in careful detail. Sometimes a crowd acted as a collective whole; other times it effectively policed itself–shunning rogue members that threw rocks at innocent buses, for instance–in a way that showed individual values had not been lost in the mix.

Eventually such observations led to a more nuanced theory of crowd behavior called the Elaborated Social Identity Model. The term is a mouthful but its principles are simple enough: the social identity of people in a crowd shifts with the situation.

Science writer Vaughan Bell gave a great hypothetical example of this behavioral model during the U.K. riots in 2011. Picture yourself on a bus with lots of strangers. Technically, you all share a common goal of reaching your destination safely. But you each have a social identity that doesn’t necessarily overlap: the old people, the commuters, the annoyingly loud teenagers. If the bus suddenly comes under attack, however, those various identities are united by a single goal: defend against the outside force. “You didn’t lose your identity,” writes Bell, “you gained a new one in reaction to a threat.”

Here’s where the militarization of local police becomes so problematic. Officers in full-on riot gear give all the individuals in a protest crowd a common enemy. It’s not that everyone in the protest crowd suddenly assumes the identity of a violent jerk–it’s that the many peaceful protestors feel a sort of kinship with the violent jerks against the aggressive police. Despite their differences, they’re united by a single goal: defend against the outside force.

Riot police in Ferguson, MOScott Olson/Getty Images

Psychologist Clifford Stott surveyed the latest evidence on crowd behavior in a 2009 report for British officials. Stott explained that an aggressive approach by authorities leads “directly to a change in the nature of the crowd’s social identity,” a shift from me and you into us and them. The result is a self-fulfilling cycle: As the crowd gains a sense of unity, the authorities become more aggressive against the unified mob they initially feared, which in turn enhances the crowd’s sense of unity. Any rioting that results will be perceived as an inevitable outcome of bad crowd behavior, writes Stott, when in fact that behavior was “largely and inadvertently initiated by police tactical responses.”


This insight has led to a new set of best practices by crowd police (much of it outlined by Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces). The key is establishing a “graded” intervention approach that only escalates if absolutely necessary. The first grade deploys low-visibility officers–those in standard uniforms rather than those with helmets, shields, and batons–who integrate with the crowd and establish legitimacy. Another grade of targeted interventions of isolated troublemakers can follow. Yet another with police in paramilitary gear can remain nearby but out of sight, as a last resort.

When officials applied these principles to crowds of soccer hooligans at the 2004 UEFA European Championship, the results were impressive. Stott reports that only a single English fan was arrested for violence, and that riot units never once drew their batons. In a 2008 paper, Stott and collaborators attribute the lack of disorder directly to the “non-paramilitary policing style adopted in cities hosting tournament matches.” It wasn’t that violent fans didn’t show up; rather, the peaceful ones, properly monitored, marginalized the jerks on their own accord.

That’s certainly not to compare the rightful protestors in Ferguson with soccer hooligans. Nor is it to suggest that the police shouldn’t be equipped to defend themselves against physical danger during a mass protest. Nor still is it to suggest that there’s always an easy universal way to handle these very complicated social situations. But the underlying point remains pretty clear from the evidence: militarized crowd protection changes the psychology of the very crowd members it’s designed to protect, and not for the better.


About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014)